Ha Long Bay and its islands: The pitfalls of tourism…

16 07 2011

Ok, so let me get the obligatory out of the way first… If you try Googling Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, you’ll probably find a plethora of websites that describe it as one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world. And quite frankly, I’d have to agree with them. Even through the rain and fog, the sheer the rawness of the small islands is something that I’d highly recommend seeing at least once in your lifetime.

With that being said, the rest of my Ha Long City experience was less than endearing. The city is quite literally a tourist trap; the city is divided into two halves: one half is dedicated solely to tourist hotels and restaurants, and the other is where the locals reside. The shops are sketchy, the food we had wasn’t all that great, the hotel was cheap and made me nervous about keeping my valuables in the room, and on more than one occasion, I was taken to a shop or restaurant that was obviously new or struggling, and they probably secretly paid our tour guide to ‘help them out’. We got dragged to a shady purveyors of ‘real pearls’. The young women in the traditional ao dais gave us a presentation that was supposed to convince us that their pearl jewelry was real, actual pearls taken straight from the shelled mollusk. We were then led into another room that contained cases and cases of pearl jewelry that were being sold to us directly, therefore a discounted price was possible on all items. I knew I smelled something fishy (besides the lunch I had) when I saw an authentic pearl necklace for 65.00 USD. On another occasion we were taken to a local coffee bean producer. It was another similar presentation with a walkthrough of their products. I have a feeling Ha Long Bay is such a growing tourist attraction that companies are moving in there trying to take advantage of the tourist pocketbooks anyway they can. They even built a small amusement park on one of the small islands in the bay that, in my estimation, is rather lame and uninspiring. The whole theme park is designated as ‘for international guests’ but as I wandered around for about thirty minutes before getting bored, I realized that it was all Vietnamese locals most likely from the local part of town. Other than the beautiful islands of the bay, I would NOT recommend spending time in the actual city of Ha Long. Spend your time out on the bay viewing and visiting the islands. Unless, of course, you decide to go on a day when the fog was super-thick and heavy, and the rain never ending.

Rain in Vietnam is nothing like rain in California. For starters, when it starts to rain, the humidity soars to almost ninety percent and the large overcast sky seems pregnant with death eaters about to burst at any second. Now, in the south, the rain is somewhat akin to a gas station car wash: you know it’s coming but before you realize it, the extremely wet downpour is over with. In the north, the weather pattern is a bit different. You still get the same inundating rain, but it seems to linger for much longer, sometimes hours or even an entire day. Either way, the rain is a tropical one, warm and wet, temporarily refreshing, and always making a dirty city even messier. In addition to drenching rain, the lightning storms I’ve encountered have been tremendous. I haven’t seen a lot of ground to cloud strikes, but the cloud-to-cloud lightning has been plentiful, blinding bright at night, and deafening loud at times. I tell you, there’s nothing like riding on a creaky, old, rusty train from Ha Noi to Sa Pa while lightning illuminates your entire cabin every thirty seconds or so as the driving rain in addition to the train wheels on the tracks create this sort of loud, white, background noise.

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